WAS BARBIE FROM THE TRIASSIC PERIOD? I wondered yesterday as I watched my son and daughter playing together with each of their favorite toys. Barbie and Triceratops were happily frolicking through the den, apparently either married or dating. They were looking for some of Jocelyn’s other Barbies (their offspring?). Once found, they were all picked up by a Pteranadon and flown through the house towards a volcano erupting in the kitchen. I crept around the house, trying to see what Barbie and Triceratops’ next adventure would be without being noticed. After they climbed the volcano, they flew off (again on the Pteranadon) toward Barbie’s summer home on the coast of Maine. Now I’m no child development expert, but I wonder how a three-year-old girl understands the real estate market value of coastal property on the Atlantic
What great kids I’ve got, I thought. What a joy to have them in my home. They were sharing, laughing, learning, and growing together. They were taking care of each other, meeting each other’s needs, and finding ways to compromise for the benefit of both. It was a true mom moment where all the work comes together to make for one magical second. These are my pay-offs. These are what I work so hard for. There’s no money in parenting, or in creating capable human beings, but these rewards tend to overwhelm my senses more than money ever could. I stand in the kitchen, listening to giggling while I’m smiling at the countertop and wondering if we should have another baby.
Forward ten minutes. Party’s over. Wailing, screaming, crying, hitting, time-outs—my Little House on the Prairie moment has come to a jarring halt. Gone is the feeling of accomplishment for raising such well-behaved children. Gone is the pride at hearing the words “please” and “thank you” uttered without persuasion. Gone is the idea of increasing the size of our family. In its place is that familiar knot in my stomach and blank look on my face. I re-enter my regular world—a world where I’m breaking up fights, fishing toothbrushes out of the toilet, and counting to ten to keep myself from yelling.
As the bellowing of children continues on behind me, I walk back to the kitchen counter. I share a lot with this kitchen counter. It sees my smiles when I’m eavesdropping on happy children playing, and it often catches my tears as I spill all my frustrations onto the linoleum. Am I having any success at being a parent? I start to question if I’m building competent members of society, or if I’m grooming a batch of societal cast-offs.
I wonder why on earth the Lord thought it would be a good idea to send some of his most precious children to live in this house. The Lord has, for unknown reasons, entrusted Don and me with these spirits. The job description is a mouthful—raise these spirits with an abiding testimony of the Lord. Teach them grace, charity, kindness, love, generosity, gratitude, leadership, humility, reverence, and faith. Oh, yeah, and along with all those things, teach them how to read, how to work, how to do arithmetic, algebra and geometry, how to take care of this world, how to manage their resources, and above all, how to use the bathroom. And if you want strong, capable, thinking adults out of this deal, there are about 1,000 other things not listed here (or anywhere else convenient). So cover all those too. Sometimes I cringe at the task in front of me. I retreat into my bedroom and pull up the covers, hoping to hide away from the overwhelming nature of my job description.
Before I had children, my career was pressure-filled and demanding. I worked twelve-hour days and traveled a lot to strange and exotic places. It was interesting, challenging and tremendously rewarding. No matter how difficult it got, though, or how much stress I felt, I never felt the demands I now feel with my children. I wasn’t responsible for my colleagues’ testimonies. I was never asked to teach a co-worker how to develop faith. Not once was I asked to clean up vomit at 2 a.m. Hindsight has shown me how easily I traveled through those years of my life.
So here I sit, listening to Barbie and Triceratops try to repair their relationship. Can they do it? I pin my hopes on their ability to reconcile their differences.Have I taught them? Do they have the skills? Is this my performance review? Thoughts bounce around as I listen to the heated discussion between the two.
I often think that evidence of my success or failure lies in these moments. I feel like the true test of my parenting lies in their ability to exist without me. My ultimate goal here is to succeed myself right out of a job. Some days that sounds pretty alluring. Other days I ache with the knowledge they won’t need me forever. Today I wonder if I can pack their bags fast enough to get them on the next bus to Grandma’s. I wonder if I’ll survive the day.
It occurs to me that Heavenly Father is a perfect parent. He does not take my imperfections upon Himself as a badge of bad parenting. He doesn’t assume my flaws are due to some mistake on His part. Heavenly Father is creating me, shaping me, watching me struggle to get along, to meet others’ needs. He’s hoping, prodding, sending me to my room on occasion, trying to teach me to be more like Him. He’s not hiding under the covers, wondering where He went wrong. He might wonder where I went wrong, but does not extend that reflection to himself. I, in turn, have my own set of hoping, prodding, and creating to do. Somehow, I’ve just got to mourn the failures my children make with them, not for them.
If the model for raising children is Heavenly Father, and the expectation is perfection, why does He send us children in our youth? Why, when in the midst of our own inexperience, does He carefully place children in our home, asking us to do what, for all practical purposes, is impossible?
Still staring at the kitchen counter, I’ve been lost in thought for a several minutes. I notice the quiet, and awaken from my thoughts. It’s not just in my head—peace has come back to the Dorton household. Barbie and Triceratops have worked it out. They are happily jaunting through the forest in the living room, looking for their baby eggs.
Is it just by chance that they found success? Has my influence been a part of anything that’s happened in the last ten minutes? Are there pieces of me somewhere inside them? I know the answer has to be yes. Of course I’m in there. Of course I’ve had influence over them. But their success does not speak directly to my success, just as their failures are not always reflections of my own failures.
Really, since Heavenly Father has purpose in all that he does, He knows that sending children into this home will not always be a perfect experience. Maybe some of the success my children have learned is from watching my failures. I sometimes yell; I sometimes lose my temper; I sometimes speak without thinking. My children watch me do all these things.
Then they watch me fix it.
They watch me make amends, apologize, repent. They observe the ways in which I deal with conflict, both internal and external in nature. They watch the Atonement play a part in my life. Maybe part of the purpose of sending children into imperfect homes is to teach them how to fix their own mistakes. Our human nature seems hard-wired and prone to mistakes, but it’s those very mistakes that help us grow. Why wouldn’t it be the same for our children?
Really, this is my performance review. The real test isnot to see how well my children behave, but how I deal with these little people when I don’t get the obedience and gratitude I expect from them. The Lord loves me with the same fervency whether or not I’m obedient and grateful. I, in turn, love my children, even as I’m pulling them off of each other after a fight. I love them when they don’t obey, don’t listen, don’t thank, don’t flush. The Lord’s words are echoed every day in my own. We’re doing the same job—me as the apprentice—He as the Master.
I suppose this involves all sorts of adult behavior, the list is quite a mouthful—things like patience, endurance, long-suffering, grace, kindness, love, charity, gratitude, forgiveness, leadership reverence, faith—wait a minute, this list is starting to sound familiar.
At least I remember to flush . . .